Friday, August 31, 2007

Reactions and Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Pt. 16

[To read my two previous posts on this chapter, go here and here.]

In the latter parts of this chapter Dawkins tries to answer the question of how, if our morality is not grounded in religion and especially in our holy books, we decide between right and wrong.

Along the way, Dawkins says that there is a generally agreed upon ethic by which most people live. He furthermore says that some elements of that ethic are found in holy books but they are found alongside teachings by which modern people would not want to live. Furthermore, he says, “the holy books do not supply any rules for distinguishing the good principles from the bad” (p. 263). I don’t know enough about other holy books to say, but I must disagree with Dawkins when it comes to the Bible. Most thinking Christians are “red letter disciples”; they understand that the life and teachings of Jesus, because he is the ultimate revelation of God in history, provide the window through which everything, including the teachings of the Bible, are to be interpreted.

Dawkins approvingly offers a set “New Ten Commandments” that he found on an atheist website (pp. 263-264). I have to agree that those ten principles are ones that I try to live by. What is missing from them, though, is a sense of transcendence, wonder, and awe. Now, Dawkins would probably say that the “rules” given in the biblical Ten Commandments do not evoke those senses, either. Taken in their overall biblical context, though, they remind us that there is something (people of faith would say “someone”) that is far beyond us and that has expectations for us that are for our ultimate good. The more I think about it, the more I come to believe that this sense of the possibility of God, of the possibility of elements of life and love that extend beyond what our physical senses can perceive, is the main thing missing from Dawkins’ approach to life. I think that fundamentalist Christians (and fundamentalists of other faiths) are wrong in their negative stance toward science. I also think that a scientist who accepts no possibility of God and thus has no access to faith is cheating himself or herself out of a God-given dimension of life.

Dawkins’ main point in this chapter is that the developed and developing morality that we find among the people in the world does not require a religious explanation. He speculates that the progressions that we have seen in morality can be explained by such things as education, communication, and great leaders. He’s not sure, but he is convinced that it does not come from religion because, he maintains, modern morality has progressed so far beyond that of religions and their holy books.

Dawkins misunderstands the role that Scripture plays in the life and thought of an (and I wish I could come up with another, less “superior” sounding word) enlightened modern Christian. Such a Christian understands that in some ways the Bible is bound by the cultures that produced it. Such a Christian does not maintain that every word of the Bible carries equal authority; I accord more authority to the “pray for your enemies” teaching of Jesus than I do to the “don’t eat catfish” rule of the Pentateuch. Such a Christian understands that while the Bible is authoritative, the Lord continues to work and to lea and to guide so that progression can still be made on the moral and ethical front that can take us even beyond the teachings of the Bible but still be in line with the teachings of the Bible.

I offer one example. Dawkins says that we have an “increased understanding that each of us shares a common humanity with members of other races and with the other sex—both deeply unbiblical ideas that come from biological science, especially evolution” (p. 271). As Dawkins says about Christians, one wonders if he has actually read the Bible. In its first two chapters it teaches that all people come form the same stuff and that both men and women are made in the image of God. In its third chapter the Bible makes clear that the uneasy and sometimes negative relationship between the sexes is the result not of God’s perfect plan but of human sin which finally means that such is part of our struggle in the world. The New Testament went far beyond its cultural milieu in its presentation of how men and women are to relate. Jesus had female disciples. The early church had to balance its ideal that in Christ women and men are equal with the practical concern of not leaping so far ahead that its witness would be ignored. But the principles were in place that would lead to full equality. It is true that some Christians and churches deal with that but, again, that is part of the struggle of being in the world. Dawkins is much too general in his statements in this area.

We must grant that religion is a source of conflict and of some of the evil that takes place in the world. That is the fault of the adherents, not of the religions themselves. Here I stand: if Christians would take seriously their obligation to live by the life and teachings of Jesus, which reveal the highest morality of all, we would be a force for nothing but good in the world. That won’t happen because we’re sinners, but we sure could do better and thereby disarm Dawkins and others at least in this part of the battle.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #15

What the Church Should Be Criticized For

Luke 5:27-32

It appears to be a conversion so radical that not too much can or should be said about it. One minute Levi is lost, the next he is found. One minute he is outcast, the next he is accepted. One minute he is sitting, the next he is following. Jesus issues a radical call to discipleship and Levi responds with radical following. He “left everything” (v. 28), we are told, to follow Jesus. That means that he left his former way of life because it was likely irredeemable; it might have been impossible to stay in his profession and be a disciple. Sometimes such hard choices have to be made. Apparently, though, if Levi was going to leave his possessions and his wealth behind he did not do so right away. No, first he gave a big party at his house for Jesus. Whatever we have we should use in ways that are motivated by love for the Lord, and Levi did that.

And so he gave the big party for Jesus and he invited the people that he knew. One reason that sinners hang out with such a disreputable crowd is that no one else will have anything else to do with them. So if Levi was going to have any friends over there wasn’t much doubt about who they were going to be. There were also the ever-present Pharisees and religious legal experts, those guardians of morality and determiners of all that was righteous. They wanted to know why Jesus and his disciples ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners. In that world, tax collectors were, because of their despised profession and their collaboration with the hated Roman occupation forces, judged to be violators of the Mosaic law. As a result, they were barred from participation in the synagogue. They were outcasts. To eat with someone was to engage in a most intimate acceptance of and fellowship with that person. Not only did Jesus not treat these sinners as outcasts but he accepted them fully into his life.

Note though that it is his disciples that the critics approach. Perhaps they were just trying to get at Jesus through them. Likely, though, Luke is trying to deal with the fact that the early church was criticized for the same thing. And frankly, this is something for which the church in every generation should be criticized. People think they are saying something bad about us if we go into the homes of socially damaged people or if we have known sinners and outcasts coming into our church to seek and to worship. In fact such criticism is a compliment. If we cannot be criticized for practicing such love and acceptance, then we have cause for concern. Jesus came to reach out to, to love, and to bring salvation and acceptance to sinners. That is our calling, too. They need repentance. They don’t need to respond to somebody’s judgmentalism but they do need to respond to God’s call to a changed life. Our task is to love them and to connect them with the God who can help them.

We too, in other words, are called to be physicians to the sick of all sorts—physical, emotional, spiritual, and social. That is our calling. Our prayer needs to be that God will make our hearts big and open them up wide. Our prayer should be that we will see people as God sees them—as lost, wandering, broken souls who need his love and grace and his changing power. Our prayer should be that God will give us the privilege of being the hands and feet and hearts of Jesus in our community. Let that be our prayer.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Preaching Them into Heaven

Ann Wroe, obituaries editor for The Economist, was a guest on the August 29, 2007 edition of NPR’s Talk of the Nation. She was there to talk about what someone says when they must eulogize a not very nice or good person. The obituary she wrote for the “Queen of Mean” Leona Helmsley prompted the interview.

It was an interesting segment about a challenging task and, like most things, it got me to thinking.

Not long after I announced my intention to go into the ministry, my father gave me a piece of advice about funeral messages. He said, “Son, just remember: you don’t have to preach everyone into heaven because everybody’s not going.” I’ve tried to remember his advice but it’s difficult for several reasons.

For one thing, at a funeral people expect to hear good things about the dearly departed. Sometimes that’s a challenge. In the Beatles’ movie Hard Day’s Night, Paul’s grandfather is along for the ride. The boys constantly remark about him, “He’s very clean.” Occasionally you feel like that’s about the best you can do. But you try to find at least one good thing to say. It’s important, though, not to go overboard. My mentor Dr. Howard Giddens likes the joke about the funeral where the preacher went on and on about what a fine man the deceased was. Finally, his widow elbowed one of her children and said, “Go look in that box and see if that’s your Daddy he’s talking about!”

For another thing, at a funeral people don’t necessarily expect to hear the truth about someone. Let’s face it: if someone was a bad person everybody knows it and there’s not much reason to say it and there’s certainly not much reason to deny it. If the truth hurts, we usually just leave it alone at the funeral.

For a third thing, and this may be the most important thing, from my perspective as a Christian minister, my main task at a funeral or at any other service at which I speak is to proclaim the good news. Many times I have been asked by the family of a fine Christian person not to talk much about that person at the funeral but to focus my remarks on Jesus and on the message of salvation. That’s what I really should do at every service. If I can use the departed’s life as an illustration of how the good news can affect someone, well and good. But the focus should be on Christ.

So it’s important, as my father said, not to try to preach someone into heaven. It’s tempting, though. And maybe, just maybe, at those times when we have reason to believe that someone isn’t going to make it, it affords us an opportunity to make a bold statement about the radical grace of God. When I took preaching in seminary, we read Henry H. Mitchell’s book The Recovery of Preaching. In it he offered a “reconstituted rendering” of an account given by Ned Walker in 1936 of a slave narrative from some seven decades earlier. The narrative was about Uncle Wash’s funeral. Uncle Wash, a blacksmith, had been a member of the A.M.E. church but had fallen away and had been sent to the penitentiary for stealing a pig. He got sick in prison, came home, and died. Let’s pick up the narrative there.

Uncle Pompey took his text from that place in the Bible where Paul and Silas was a-layin’ in jail. He dwelt on Uncle Wash’s life of hard work and bravery—how he tackled kickin’ horses and mules, so’s crops could be cultivated and harvested and hauled. He talked about how he sharpened dull plow points, to make the corn and cotton grow, to feed the hungry and clothe the naked. He told what a good-hearted man Uncle Wash was, and then he allowed as how his goin’ to jail didn’t necessarily mean he didn’t go to heaven. He declared it wasn’t eternally against a church member to get put in jail. It it hadda been, Paul and Silas wouldn’t ‘a made it to heaven, and he knowed they was there. In fact, they was a lot of people in heaven what had been arrested. Then he went to talkin’ ‘bout a vision of Jacob’s ladder.
“I see Jacob’s ladder. An’ I see Brother Wash. He’s climbin’ Jacob’s ladder. Looks like he’s half way up. I want you all to pray with me that he enter the pearly gates, Brothers and Sisters. He’s still a-climbin’. I see the pearly gates. They is swingin’ open. An’ I see Brother Wash. He done reached the topmost round of the ladder. Let us sing with all our hearts that blessed hymn, ‘There is a fountain filled with blood.’”
When they sang the second verse, ‘bout “The dyin’ thief rejoiced to see that fountain in his day,” Uncle Pompey cried out over the crowd, “I see Brother Wash as he enters in, and that dyin’ thief is there to welcome him in. Thank God! Thank God! He’s made it into paradise. His sins has been washed away, and he has landed safe forever more.”
(pp. 52-53)

Every opportunity to preach is an opportunity to proclaim the possibilities inherent in the bold grace of God.

But that’s really about God. We still shouldn’t make someone sound better than he or she was. And I may be guilty of that sometimes.

Once, after I had preached a funeral and finished the graveside service, a young lady came up to me and said, “Mike, you’re a Baptist preacher and I’m a Methodist, but I’ll tell you right now that I want you to preach my funeral.” “Why?” I asked. “Because you can find something good to say about anybody!”

More Josh Ruffin Prose

Our son Joshua has two new CD reviews posted at this week's MetroSpirit.com. You can read them here and here. I suspect that most of my readers won't understand the music any better than I do, but you have to admit, the kid can write.

Religion and Humor

This morning I watched two television segments that raised the issue of the use of humor in addressing religious belief.

First, a segment on the Today show addressed the decision by some twenty-five newspapers, including the strip’s host newspaper the Washington Post, not to run last Sunday’s Opus cartoon. I didn’t realize that such a controversy existed because my local newspaper, the Augusta Chronicle, did run it. The Post syndicate sent an alert to the papers that carry Opus letting them know that the August 26 and September 2 strips might be objectionable to some. There were two concerns with the strip. First, it poked fun (rather gently, it seems to me) at Muslim fundamentalism and second, it contained some sexual innuendo.

I enjoy the Opus strip. The subjects treated and the humor used are more often than not more appropriate for adults than for children and one could probably make a good case for including it on the Opinion page rather than on the Comics page, as some papers have done with Doonesbury.

The discussion on the Today show included conservative radio talk show host Michael Smerconish who saw the suppression of the strip as political correctness run amok. He said that our fear of offending Muslims ends up making us less safe because it keeps us from taking the necessary steps to defend ourselves against attacks from extremists. In the same conversation, Hussein Ibish, the Executive Director of the Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, said that those papers that did run the strip had the right to do so and those that did not run it had the right to do so, as well. He said that not running it was a legitimate editorial decision based on what he saw as the “provocative” and “incoherent” nature of the strip. I suspect that the truth is that the desire not to offend Muslims lay at the heart of most editors’ decisions not to run it. Does fear lie at the base of such decisions? Perhaps, given the riots that ensued following the publication a couple of years ago by a Danish newspaper of cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad. It should be noted, though, that no such reaction has followed the publication of the Opus cartoon which did not show an image of Muhammad.

What really raises the hackles of some folks is that the previous week’s Opus strip poked fun at the recently deceased Christian evangelical minister Jerry Falwell and no warning was sent out about it and no papers decided not to run it. That raises the question of a double standard—is it ok to make fun of Christians but not of Muslims?

The other television segment I watched was an interview by Larry King with Bill Maher. Maher talked about a documentary film about religion that he and Larry Charles (Borat) hope to release next Easter. He said that he’s thinking about titling it Religulous, a combination of the words “religion” and “ridiculous,” which I guess tells you everything you need to know about the tenor of the film. While one should reserve judgment until the movie is viewed, I think we can safely assume that the humor directed toward religion will not be gentle.

What should we make of such things? First, it is important to be kind to one another. Christians and other people of faith should take care to be as loving and gentle as we can be. Personally, I’d rather tell a Baptist joke than a Methodist or Muslim joke because then I’m talking about my own tribe. We really should try to avoid hurting one another.

Second, it’s also important to be able to laugh even about very serious matters. When we step back and try to be objective, there’s a good bit of strange and unusual in all religious practices. That’s a good thing, because we are supposed to offer a counter-cultural and even otherworldly witness to those around us. There’s still room for smiles and laughs, though.

Third, we need to recognize that some humor about religion should be cutting because some ideas that are put forth in the name of religion deserve to be lampooned. Even then, though, some caution should be exercised because of the seriousness with which people take their beliefs.

Fourth, religion operates in many realms and among those realms are those of ideas and words. In a society where the free expression of ideas through words is a cherished freedom, any effort to limit speech should be avoided. In turn, if someone is offended, they have the right to say so.

Many years ago I saw a pair of Christian comedians doing a pretty funny shtick. It was during the period when Cyndi Lauper, Captain Lou Albano, and Hulk Hogan were involved in a professional wrestling storyline that was called “The Rock and Wrestling Connection.” These two comedians proposed something similar that would combine church practices with wrestling. They demonstrated some wrestling holds that could be used in such a scenario. One was a full Nelson, in which one wrestler grasps the other one in a manner that causes his arms to shoot straight up; they said that this would be a “Pentecostal hold.” The audience thought that was pretty funny. Then, though, the duo demonstrated another hold. It was a choke hold that they called the “fundamentalist hold,” which, they said, “cuts off the oxygen to the brain.” The audience groaned at that one. I confess that I was laughing at home. The comedians never seemed quite to get their audience back after that. Why it was ok to poke fun at Pentecostals but not at fundamentalists escaped me. Perhaps it was the content of the joke. The one about Pentecostals could be seen as a gentle jab at the known and accepted practices of Pentecostal worship while the one about fundamentalists could be taken as a swipe at their intelligence or at least their willingness to think. Of course, not all fundamentalists are thinking-challenged, but not all Pentecostals raise their hands when they worship, either. But some are and some do.

And therein lies the rub. Where does humor become hurt? Where do the lines exist? Such is the challenge.

I’m not kidding.

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Reactions and Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Part 15

(Go here to read the first part of my treatment of chapter seven, “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist.”)

Dawkins makes at least two main points in this chapter. First, “Those who wish to base their morality literally on the Bible have either not read it or not understood it” (p. 237). It is that contention that I talk about in my previous post on this chapter. His statement must be accepted if one takes a “flat Bible” approach in one’s reading and interpretation. Even in many of those Old Testament narratives and laws that offend modern sensibilities we can find lasting truth if we are looking for it. Most importantly, I maintain that one cannot find a more meaningful and more enduring ethic than that taught by Jesus and lived by him. It is to the shame of us Christians that most of us do such a lousy job of living it out that few people can see its power at work in today’s world. (To be fair, even Dawkins has positive things to say about Jesus.)

The fact is, though, that nobody actually takes much of the Bible literally, even if they claim that they do. Not even Christians base their morality on the literal interpretation of the Bible, which fact leads into Dawkins’ second main point in this chapter. He says, “All I am trying to establish is that we do not, as a matter of fact, derive our morals from Scripture. Or, if we do, we pick and choose among the scriptures for the nice bits and reject the nasty” (p. 243). I agree that most people do not derive their morals from the Bible. I would go further to say that if Christians would actually derive their morals from the example of Jesus and from the ethical teachings of his parables and the Sermon on the Mount, we would really be a revolutionary force in the world.

Dawkins has real problems with one of the central tenets of the New Testament, namely the teaching about the atonement and especially the sacrificial death of Jesus. Indeed, he calls it “sado-masochism” and comments, “God incarnated himself as a man, Jesus, in order that he should be tortured and executed in atonement for the hereditary sin of Adam. Ever since Paul expounded this repellent doctrine, Jesus has been worshipped as the redeemer of our sins” (p. 252). Dawkins goes on to ask, “If God wanted to forgive our sins, why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed…? (p. 253). It should be said that Dawkins builds some of his case on what is almost surely a misconception of what the doctrine of original sin really means; no doubt some folks think of it as being passed on biologically but it is probably true that many more of us think of it as being passed on spiritually and socially. One thing’s for sure: something is wrong with us and we have not yet evolved beyond the capacity for utter evil. It strikes me that, for an educated man and a person familiar with the ways of the world, Dawkins is incredibly na├»ve about the cost of forgiveness. Moreover, his characterization of the atonement is way off-base; the self-sacrifice of God in Christ is an extraordinary action of grace and love that shows just how far God will go to make things right between him and us. Such talk by me, of course, assumes that there is a God and that we need things to be made right with him.

I plan to conclude my discussion with Chapter 7 later this week.

Monday, August 27, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Duty to Desire

[A sermon based on 1 Corinthians 15:1-11 (esp. v. 10); second in a series]

What kind of church is the greatest church in the world? We could give a lot of answers to that question. Some of us would say that the greatest church in the world is the church that baptizes a lot of people. Some of us would say that the greatest church in the world is the church that ministers well to the needs of its members and to the needs of its community. Some of us would say that the greatest church in the world is the church that effectively prays for and supports missions. And no doubt all of these factors could be among the marks of a great church.

But I want to propose this thought to you: the greatest church in the world is the church that adequately understands and practices grace.

“Grace” is the most powerful word in the powerful vocabulary of the Bible. In God’s grace we are saved, in God’s grace we are used, and by God’s grace we are empowered. Only as a church operates in the realm of this grace can it be truly great. For you see, a church can be great only when it moves from duty to desire—when it moves from doing what it feels obliged to do to doing what it wants to do because, out of some marvelous force welling up from the inside, it must be done.

We begin with the fact that it is in God’s grace that we are saved. Here in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul’s purpose is to present to the Corinthians the basic elements of the gospel message. So he recounts how “Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve” (vv. 3b-5). Paul goes on to tell that Christ also appeared to him.

What Paul has reviewed here is God’s gracious plan for the salvation of people like you and me. It was “in accordance with the scriptures,” which means that it was in accordance with God’s gracious plan. This plan was a gracious plan because our salvation was undeserved. We did not, because we cannot, earn it. God conceived of and carried out his plan of salvation out of his grace.

In other words, God did it because he wanted to, not because he had to. In still other words, he did it out of his desire and not out of duty. What I mean is that God was not obligated to send Jesus to save us because of some merit in us or because of some strictures by which he was bound. God is gracious and out of his grace he freely chose to do what he did. Now, we could say, and it would be accurate, that grace is part of God’s nature and that he was in a sense compelled to send Christ by this grace that is part of his character. But he still chose to respond to the prompting of his grace. He chose to send Jesus.

It is in God’s grace that we are saved, but it is also in God’s grace that we are used. Paul’s salvation experience was so closely connected with his call to be an apostle of Christ that they cannot be separated. That is really true of all of us. Our experience of salvation, which brings with it great benefits, also brings with it great responsibility. We are saved to serve.

Remarkable as it is, God in his grace chooses to use us to carry out his ministry. Paul said that he was “unfit to be called an apostle” (v. 8) because he had persecuted the church. But we are all unfit to be sent by God to do his work, which is the meaning of the word “apostle.” God’s purpose for his followers is that we spread the good news of the salvation that is available through his Son Jesus Christ. To do so is a great privilege and a great responsibility and God bestows the mission upon us in his grace.

So God gives us salvation in his grace. Part of that salvation is the privilege and responsibility to share the message of his salvation. What enables us to do that? It is by God’s grace that we are empowered. Verse 10 makes a marvelous statement: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me has not been in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them—though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Is carrying out our ministry, then, a matter of duty or desire? Paul said that he worked hard as an apostle but that it was by God’s grace that he was an apostle in the first place and it was by God’s grace that he was empowered to do the work he did. It is the same with us.

Make no mistake about it: there is a great duty involved in being a Christian and in being a church. Our duty is nothing less than carrying the good news of Jesus Christ to a world that needs it but cannot or does not believe it. We have the duty of making that good news clear to them in the ways that we think, that we talk, and that we act. But are we functioning at our best—can we be a really great church—if we must make ourselves carry out this duty? No! We can be a really great church only when we realize the truth that the grace of God is within us, empowering us to do what we must do. It is that grace that gives us not only the ability but the desire to do our duty.

You will recall what was said earlier about the impetus behind God’s plan of salvation. He sent Jesus not because he had to but because his grace compelled him to want to. So it should be with us. We share Jesus in all that we do not because we have to but because God’s grace within us compels us to want to. Only when the desire is fueled and empowered by God’s grace can we carry out our mission in proper and great ways.

We need to be reminded of at least two things. First, let us be reminded of God’s grace that gave him the desire to send his Son Jesus to die for our sins. Second, let us be reminded of God’s grace that is within us that gives us the desire to share his Son with others.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Go Dawgs!

(Sabbath Blog #31)

Some people would say that I am not a real Georgia Bulldog fan. That’s because I don’t hate Georgia Tech. Indeed, I pull for Tech in every game they play except for the Georgia game. I would not put a bumper sticker on my car that says “I still hate Tech.” I pull for Tech like I pull for Valdosta State, Georgia Southern, and Fort Valley State—if the college is in Georgia, I root for them. If that keeps me from being a true Bulldog fan, so be it.

I do, though, consider myself a University of Georgia fan. I fly a UGA banner outside our house during football season. I plan my schedule around watching the televised Bulldog games. I read the DogBytes website every day during the season. I grieve when the Dawgs lose and I rejoice when they win. No other football team’s fortunes stir any particular emotions in me.

It’s hard to say why I became a Dawg fan rather than a Yellow Jacket fan. I grew up nearer Atlanta than Athens. It may be that I just associated rooting for the Georgia Bulldogs with rooting for the state of Georgia, which seemed a natural thing to do.

I have another theory, though. When I was a child, my hometown of Barnesville was the home of Gordon Military High School and Gordon Military College. The high school has gone the way of the dinosaur now while the military college has become a unit of the University System of Georgia. But during the 1960s, I spent many a Friday night at Gordon Military High School games and many a Saturday night at Gordon Military College games. So here’s my theory as to why I became a Georgia Bulldog fan: the Gordon teams were known as the Bulldogs, also. Their helmets were even the same color and had the same style “G” on them. I remember being glad that I could have a Georgia Bulldog souvenir in my room and have it be a Gordon Military Bulldog, too. So I think that my love for the Gordon Bulldogs led naturally to a love for the Georgia Bulldogs.

Regardless, I am a Georgia Bulldog fan and I’m excited about the upcoming season. Most folks are picking the Dawgs to be good but not great. The consensus of the pollsters is that they are the #13 team in the country. That’s pretty good. The Dawgs’ first game is next Saturday, September 1, against Oklahoma State. With the season opener just six days away, I thought I’d offer my predictions for the upcoming season.

Georgia 31, Oklahoma State 17. Georgia doesn’t lose many non-conference games at home. The Cowboys are a tougher than usual opening game opponent, though, and it could be close.

Georgia 35, South Carolina 10. The evil genius Steve Spurrier is making some noise about the Gamecocks being a contender. I look for the Dawgs to make him eat his words.

Georgia 45, Western Carolina 17. Most of the visitors’ points will come late.

Georgia 14, Alabama 10. Nick Saban will soon have the Tide back in contention for the SEC and national titles. This will be a tough game at Tuscaloosa.

Georgia 28, Ole Miss 21. The SEC is tough. Home field will matter in this one.

Tennessee 31, Georgia 28. The first loss of the season will be a heart-breaker.

Georgia 42, Vanderbilt 13. The Dawgs won’t forget last year.

Georgia 27, Florida 24. This will be an upset, as the Gators will likely come in undefeated and ranked in the top 5, but Georgia is due for a win in this series. Matthew Stafford will outplay Tim Tebow.

Georgia 41, Troy 21. Georgia has a history of not playing particularly well against teams that they are supposed to beat and they will be dealing with post-Jacksonville letdown. Troy is a program on the rise.

Auburn 31, Georgia 24. The Tigers will want revenge for the spanking the Dawgs administered on the Plains last year. The visiting team seems to win quite often in this historic series.

Georgia 34, Kentucky 10. Same storyline as the Vandy game.

Georgia Tech 28, Georgia 27. I hate to say it, but Tech is overdue for a win in the series and they’re going to be a better team without Reggie Ball and Calvin Johnson.

Again, I’m a Georgia fan and I hope they go undefeated. But it looks to me like a 9-3 season with a second or third place finish in the SEC East and a top fifteen ranking.

We’ll see. Go Dawgs!

Friday, August 24, 2007

Jalapeno Baptists

Baptists love to have meetings and I’ve been to lots of them. Some of them were memorable.

There was the annual meeting of the Owen County, Kentucky Baptist Association one summer in the early 1980s. I was a student at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and was serving as pastor of the Beech Grove Baptist Church in that association. The small rural church where we were meeting had spruced their sanctuary up very nicely, including putting a new coat of paint on the pews. It was hot—very hot—that night. The two window air conditioners were cranked up as high as they would go but they weren’t helping all that much. The meeting dragged on and on. Finally and mercifully, the song leader announced the closing hymn. As everyone stood up, a kind of cracking sound filled the sanctuary as the new paint chose to leave the pews and rise with our clothes. At least we all took a souvenir home with us!

Then there was the Georgia Baptist Convention meeting in Savannah in the early 1990s when I witnessed and participated in the one truly serendipitous and maybe even miraculous moment to occur at a Baptist meeting that I attended. At that point the future direction of the GBC was still in question. A fundamentalist-supported president was presiding. The organized fundamentalists in Georgia had waged a year-long campaign against Mercer University and against the state newspaper the Christian Index and its editor, Jack Harwell. We thought that we had a good turnout of moderates, but no effort had been made to field an opposition candidate to the fundamentalist incumbent who was eligible to run for a second term. For some reason, Rev. Jim Pitts, the solid but relatively unknown pastor of the First Baptist Church in Valdosta, had been named to preach the doctrinal sermon that was to be delivered on Tuesday morning before the Tuesday afternoon election of officers. He got up and in his quiet, unassuming way talked about historic Baptist principles by organizing them around the letters A, B, C, P, and S: authority of the Bible, believer’s baptism, church autonomy, priesthood of believers, and separation of church and state. When he finished, I asked him if I could nominate him for vice-president. “Well, Mike,” he said, “that would be all right, but some fellow just asked me if I’d be willing to be nominated for president.” He was nominated and he won! They would eventually get rid of Harwell and they would eventually divorce Mercer, but for a brief shining moment Georgia Baptists rallied around her two great historic institutions and her historic principles and around a humble minister who had absolutely no desire to be president. It was the most Baptist and certainly the most Christian state convention meeting I have ever attended.

Then there was the 2007 Cooperative Baptist Fellowship General Assembly in Washington, D.C. The workshops were very good. The camaraderie was refreshing. The spirit was encouraging. But the highlight of the week was the joint worship service in which the folks attending the CBF and delegates attending the American Baptist Churches in the U.S.A. biennial meeting shared. How good it was to celebrate our joint devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ, our common commitment to historic Baptist principles, and our shared participation in missions and ministry. How good it was to sing, to pray, and to share Communion with diverse Baptists who understood how we could unite around the main things.

But that joint CBF/ABCUSA service was, I hope and believe, only a foretaste of what we will experience January 30-February 1 in Atlanta when we gather for the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant. There, we expect over 20,000 Baptists representing many different Baptist groups from across North America to come together to worship, to learn, and to fellowship. I anticipate that we will all make many new friends, that we will be inspired to make great strides in taking the gospel to our neighborhoods, that we will be more convinced than ever of the ongoing validity and necessity of Baptist principles, and that we will go away talking about getting back together as soon as possible.

In his book When Religion Becomes Evil, Charles Kimball told this story:
Speaking at the fall convocation at Wake Forest University in November 1997, Bill Moyers humorously . . . (noted) that Jesse Jackson, Jesse Helms, Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell were all Baptists. He went on to make the following observation about Baptists…: “Baptists are a lot like jalapeno peppers. One or two make for a tasty dish. But when you get a bunch of them together in one place, it is sure to bring tears to your eyes!” (p. 224, f.n. 27)
I’ve been to lots of Baptist meetings that brought tears to my eyes; sometimes they were tears that came because I was laughing so hard and sometimes they were tears that came because I was grieving so much. I anticipate that when this bunch of Baptists gets together at the Celebration of the New Baptist Covenant, it will bring tears to my eyes, and they will be tears born of hope, promise, and joy.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #14

Healing the Whole Person

Luke 5:12-26

Jesus was engaged in the ministry of healing. If Jesus was engaged in the ministry of healing then his followers should also be engaged in the ministry of healing.

First, we should be engaged in the ministry of social healing. In vv. 12-16 we see Jesus healing a leper. Leprosy was a physical disease but in the ancient world it had severe social repercussions. A leper had to wear torn clothes and had to cover his lip and cry out “Unclean” to anyone approaching. Lepers had to live outside the normal social circles in which folks usually resided. Perhaps that is why this leper phrased his question the way he did: “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean” (v. 12). He seemed to have no doubt as to Jesus’s ability to heal him; he probably mustered the boldness to approach Jesus on the basis of his belief in Jesus’s ability, a belief probably born out of reports of other healings. The leper’s question likely expresses his doubt as to whether Jesus will deal with a social outcast. Jesus of course did and the man was healed and was thus allowed to resume his place in society.

Individual Christians and the church that they comprise are to be about the business of helping the outcasts and the unacceptable, too. Who are they in our community and what can we do to help them? I think that a ministry like our Share Room and our other benevolence ministries offer a good start. But there should be no one who is beyond the reach of the Lord’s grace and love as expressed in our lives. Who does our society marginalize besides the poor? Are we as a church guilty of shunning or marginalizing certain people? The church has to be willing and anxious to help anyone who needs help. At the same time, the church has to get to a point where we bravely face the political and social structures that work against justice and fairness and that create divisions and that beat people down.

Second, we should be engaged in the ministry of physical healing. Jesus healed a paralyzed man in the second story of our passage. The church should be involved in a comprehensive ministry to the sick and the hurting. I like the model that is offered to us by the men who brought their paralyzed friend to Jesus. They were obviously filled with compassion and love; they were going to let absolutely nothing stand in the way of their getting their friend to Jesus. That is the way we should be. We should want to make sure that those we know and love come into the orbit of the healing power of Jesus. I once heard a preacher use this story at an ordination service as a model for how deacons should minister. I like that, but I think it is a model for how we all should minister. We should bring our sick friends before Jesus in prayer and into the presence of Jesus in whatever ways we can.

Third, we should be engaged in a ministry of spiritual healing. There is an interesting twist to this story. The friends bring the man to Jesus because their friend is paralyzed. But Jesus does not immediately address that physical need. Luke reports, “When he saw their faith, he said, ‘Friend, your sins are forgiven you’” (v. 20). This of course created problems with the Pharisees and scribes there assembled because they thought that Jesus was being blasphemous by claiming to do something that only God could do. Jesus then healed the man’s paralysis to demonstrate that he had the power not only to heal but also to forgive. That is the connection between the man’s physical healing and his spiritual healing.

The greatest need of people is spiritual healing. God is interested in the whole person and so should we be, but the most deeply felt needs of people, whether they could put it this way or not, is spiritual healing. They need to have their sins forgiven. How else can we say that? They need to come home to the Lord. They need to experience grace. They need to know that their lives can count for something. They need to know that they don’t have to stand under the threat of judgment. They need to have a relationship with God that gives them a healthy perspective on life. Spiritual wellness is the basis for all other kinds of wellness. John Kavanaugh told this story.
She had some kind of “wasting disease,” her different powers fading away over the march of the month. A student of mine happened upon her on a coincidental visit. The student kept going back, drawn by the strange force of the woman’s joy. Though she could no longer move her arms and legs, she would say, “I’m just so happy I can move my neck.” When she could no longer move her neck, she would say, “I’m just so glad I can hear and see.”
When the young student finally asked the old woman what would happen if she lost her sound and sight, the gentle old lady said, “I’ll just be so grateful that you come to visit”
[John Kavanaugh, America 73, no. 10 (Oct. 7, 1995), 24, cited by Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust (HarperSanFranciso, 2000), pp. 32-33].

I don’t know that lady, but sounds like someone who is spiritually well to me. How can we as Christians and we as a church purposely extend the grace and love and forgiveness of the Lord to those around us who are lost and broken? How can we foster wellness and wholeness and forgiveness and grace and love?

Let us pray that God will give us a vision for a ministry of healing to the whole person. Let us pray that he will inspire us to carry it out. Let us pray that we will always be a family within which help and healing are freely extended.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Water, Water Everywhere—But Not a Drop to Drink

The phrase is from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The verse, which describes the predicament of a ship and sailors lost at sea, actually says,

Water, water, every where,
And all the boards did shrink ;
Water, water, every where,
Nor any drop to drink.


We can easily imagine the predicament of those sailors, mocked by the ocean full of salt water surrounding them and by the absence of any fresh water to drink.

I feel that way about religion these days. It’s ubiquitous but sometimes I wonder how many people are being nourished and enlivened and helped by it. I furthermore wonder how much good religion is doing in our societies and in the world at large.

But talk about religion is certainly everywhere. This week CNN is airing a series entitled God’s Warriors. In it, reporter Christiane Amanpour is examining those adherents of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam who can be considered the “warriors” of those religions in that they are committed to changing the world in the ways that they believe God would have them do so. They are the militants who see no separation between the sacred and the secular and who honor no division between church or synagogue or mosque and state and who are fully committed to shaping the world according to the tenets of the fundamentalist arms of their faiths. And some of them are armed.

Also, tonight PBS will air Cities of Light: the Rise and Fall of Islamic Spain. Here is a plot summary provided by Unity Productions Foundation, which produced the film:
Over a thousand years ago, the sun-washed lands of Southern Spain were home to Muslims, Christians, and Jews living together and flourishing. Their culture and beliefs intertwined and the knowledge of the ancients was gathered and reborn. Here were the very seeds of the Renaissance. But this world too quickly vanished. Greed, fear, and intolerance swept it away. Puritanical judgments and absolutism snuffed out the light of learning. Within a few centuries, the fragile union of these people dissipated like smoke.
I heard someone say that the film might provide food for thought as we ponder the possible future of the United States if we don’t somehow boldly and gladly affirm religious pluralism. Where will the intolerance of fundamentalism lead us?

There’s more. The cover story of the latest issue of the Christian Century asks the question “A Mormon in the White House?” The publication of The Preacher and the Presidents by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy has brought the role of religion in the lives of Presidents and presidential candidates even more into the spotlight. Books by atheists like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris and counter-publications by various Christians and theists have thrust religion into the center of public discourse.

But is anybody being helped by all of this press and subsequent discussion? I’m frankly not too concerned about God’s reputation; God can defend God’s self just fine, I’m sure. But I am concerned about the role of religion in society, both American and international. People like Dawkins and Kitchens believe that the world would be better off without religion; I don’t agree with that and even if I did it wouldn’t matter because there is never going to be a world without religion. Whether you believe that God has revealed God’s self to us, as I do, or whether you believe that we created God out of our own emotional needs, as others do, the fact is that humans have, at least as long as there has been recorded history, believed in God. So it behooves us to accept each other and to try to understand each other and even to appreciate each other as we try to live out our faith.

Let’s face the facts. There will always be Christians. There will always be Muslims. There will always be Jews. There will always be Buddhists and Hindus and atheists. Until Jesus comes back (my Christian bias is going to emerge sometimes and you just have to allow me that even as I have to allow you yours) we are all going to be here together. Therefore, I believe, any and every nation, including the United States, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Russia and so on until the list is exhausted, is best served to have a system of government that is basically secular in its orientation while at the same time insisting upon religious liberty for all. Here in the United States especially, where we have lived under a Constitution for over 200 years that does just that, we must be vigilant to preserve such a system. It is for the good of the nation, for the good of the various faiths, including Christianity, and for the good of the world.

At the same time, our leaders need to have a solid understanding of the various world religions and of the role that religious beliefs play in the formulation and execution of policy by the various nations and groups with which we deal. In an interview conducted with former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright during the preparation of CNN’s God’s Warriors, she said,
In order to effectively conduct foreign policy today, you have to understand the role of God and religion…. Religion is instrumental in shaping ideas and policies. It’s an essential part of everyday life in a whole host of countries. And obviously it plays a role in how these countries behave, so we need to know what the religious influence is.
(Secretary Albright fleshes this idea out more in her 2006 book The Mighty and the Almighty.)
I’ve often thought that if I were a young person looking for a good and helpful career and if I had a felicity for languages, I would learn Farsi or Arabic and go to work as a translator for the State Department. But a young person might be well served to do graduate work in World Religions as well, because we need people who can translate non-Western religious ideas for our leaders.

As a Christian minister, my greater concern is for the public image of the Church and of the Christians who make up that Church. Let’s face it—sometimes we are our own worse enemies and, even worse, we often bring more negative attention to our faith than our critics could ever hope to cause. We don’t need to be Christian soldiers in the sense that we march off to wage battle against other religions by bashing and ridiculing them. We don’t need to be Christian soldiers in the sense that we try to use the trappings of power to force our will on everybody else. We don’t need to be Christian soldiers in the sense that we spout constant condemnation—and enjoy it. We Christians, and especially we who speak publicly for the Church, need to guard our words. We need to speak the truth, but we need to speak it in love—even for our enemies, for whom our Lord taught us to pray.

As a Christian minister, my greatest concern is that we actually do good through the practice of our faith. My fear is that even with all this talk about religion in our media and in our politics and in our culture there really is “water, water everywhere but not a drop to drink.” Our calling is to offer that cup of cool water in Jesus’ name. Our calling is to heal and to preach and to teach. Our calling is to offer the radical grace of God to a lost and dying world. Our calling is to practice love and sacrifice and hope. Our calling is to live a Christ-like life and to carry out a Christ-like ministry.

After all, we have the water of life. Isn’t giving it away the most important thing we can do?

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Reactions and Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Pt. 14

Chapter 7 is entitled “The ‘Good’ Book and the Changing Moral Zeitgeist.” Zeitgeist means “spirit of the times” (p. 265).

I must confess that Dawkins presents some accurate information in this chapter although one could and should certainly argue with his conclusions.

For example, Dawkins says that much of what the Old Testament teaches and narrates about God and God’s people is morally questionable by modern standards. As might be expected, since Dawkins is a scientist and not a theologian or biblical scholar, he offers the same old rundown of allegedly questionable stories, ranging from the God-sanctioned destruction of the residents of Canaan to the Mosaic law’s assignment of the death penalty for offenses like adultery and idolatry to the attempted sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham.

Let me say right now, as honestly and openly as I can, that such episodes are indeed troubling. Christians and all people of faith ought to face and not run from the hard questions that our Scriptures raise. Some of us simply say, “If that’s what the Bible says that God commanded, then that’s that.” Others of us say, “While I certainly believe what the Bible says, I also recognize that the voice of God is received by human beings and, in cases like the commanded destruction of whole peoples, who can know how much of that was God and how much of it was what the leaders of the people wanted?” Others of us say, and I tend to fall in this camp, “While the Old Testament certainly reveals things that we need to know about God, and included in those things are the facts that God is holy and judges sin, the ultimate revelation of God is in his Son Jesus Christ from whom we learn that God is finally and ultimately a God of love, grace, and sacrifice who goes to unspeakably great lengths to save us—but who still is holy and judges sin.”

I do wonder, though, how much harm we have done in trying to make God palatable to modern sensibilities? On the one hand, I’m no proponent of a “flat Bible” approach; I believe that God revealed himself more and more completely until he revealed himself most fully in Jesus Christ. I would even say that God has continued to reveal himself in subsequent ages, with the caveat that we must judge any perceived further revelation by his ultimate revelation in Jesus and by his revelation in Scripture. Dawkins speaks somewhat approvingly of those more “enlightened” theologians who have demythologized (Dawkins doesn’t use that word but that’s what he means) all the narratives of the Old Testament. Granted, some narratives are to be taken symbolically but it’s pretty clear where the Bible means to be recording history, albeit it interpreted history, which is the only kind there is. But who is to say that God is not sometimes involved in the rough and tumble world of human geopolitics? That’s where real life happens.

This much I must say, though: even were I to conclude that God in fact told the Israelites to slay all the inhabitants of Jericho or some other city, I would never say that he still tells people to do so today and I would draw that conclusion based on Christian principles. I must take seriously the Old Testament’s witness that the people of Israel were his special people. I do not believe, however, that God has adopted any other nation in that way. So, if somebody says “God wills that we destroy Samarra” or “God wills that we wipe out Tel Aviv” or “God wills that we attack New York City” I will receive that as the heresy that I believe it to be. In other words, those Old Testament narratives are not transferable.

[I will continue to respond to chapter 7 on Friday.]

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Vision for the Church: Moving Beyond Potential to Productivity

(A sermon based on John 15:1-17)

[Note: this is the first sermon in a six-part series entitled “A Vision for the Church.” Subsequent sermons will be “Moving Beyond Duty to Desire,” “Moving Beyond Presence to Participation,” “Moving Beyond Maintenance to Ministry,” “Moving Beyond Escapism to Expectation,” and “Moving Beyond Security to Sacrifice.”]

I want us to talk for a few weeks about having a vision for the church. Today we will talk about moving beyond potential to productivity.

Potential is both a promising and a frustrating reality. It is good to realize that we are not yet all that we can be and that we have within us what it takes to move forward in being God’s church. But it is frustrating to realize that we are not making all of the progress that we can and that we continue to let things stand in the way of our being all that God intends for us to be.

So it is important to lay out some very important truths here at the beginning. In John 15, Jesus says that he is the vine, that those who follow him are the branches, and that God the Father is the vinedresser. That means that Jesus Christ is the source for everything that the branches produce. He provides all of the necessary nutrients that we who are the branches need to produce the fruit that we should produce. God the Father prunes us so that we can produce even better fruit.

What potential a church has, then! We have a vital and intrinsic connection with Jesus Christ himself. Our Father in heaven lovingly and honestly tends to us so that we can do a good job of bearing his kind of fruit. This church and every Christian who shares in its ministry have the potential to do great things for God. But we must ask ourselves the important question: are we living up to our potential? Are we moving beyond our potential to productivity?

To answer that question, let’s ask some questions about our expected “produce.”

What is our produce to be?

We could talk here about growth in unity as the body of Christ. We could talk about growth in ministry. We could talk about growth in what Paul calls the “fruits of the spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). Let us concentrate, though, on the necessary basics discussed by Jesus in our text.

Our produce is to be obedience. Jesus said that “we have already been cleansed by the word” that he has spoken (v. 3). Only by being obedient to his word can we be what he wants us to be. He is Lord; we are servants whom he treats as friends (vv. 14-15). He has blessed us with the power to live by sharing with us the words of his Father. We respond as friends when we obey him. We are to be obedient to all of his words, not just those that we like or agree with. Our obedience is to be radical obedience.

Our produce is to be love. The most important way in which we are obedient to his words is in our love for one another: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (vv. 12-13). To keep his commandments is to abide in his love (v. 10). Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with everything we are, with the second being to love our neighbors as ourselves. Jesus commanded us that our primary fruit would be love for one another. That love is to be the kind that gives self up totally for our brothers and sisters. It is the kind that causes us to love and to stick with each other even when we fail each other and let one another down. Are we producing love?

What are the qualities of our produce?

What will the fruit produced by the church be like?

It endures beyond the moment. Jesus said that he chose his disciples “to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last” (v. 16). The fruit of the church has staying power. It is not here today and gone tomorrow; it is of eternal significance.

It extends beyond the minimum requirements. Our goal is not just to bear fruit; it is to bear “much fruit” (v. 8). We are not to be interested in just meeting the minimum requirements, just, as the old saying goes, to get into heaven by the skin of our teeth. We want to do the Father’s will and his will is that we be as productive as we can be. When are we obedient enough? Never! When are we loving enough? Never! We are being appropriately productive only as we become ever more productive.

It exhibits the way of the Father. Jesus said, “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit…” (v. 8). When we go beyond meeting the minimum requirements by producing the fruit of obedience and love we bring glory to the Father. This is true in the same sense that the life and ministry of Jesus brought glory to the Father. Jesus glorified his Father by obediently emptying himself and by showing love with everything he was and had. That’s how we glorify God, too.

It establishes our discipleship. There is more to v. 8: “My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit, and become my disciples.” Our discipleship and our fruit-bearing are inseparably intertwined. As we bear abundant obedience and love our discipleship becomes clear. Do you want the world to know you are a Christian? Then exhibit obedience and love. Do we want the world to know that we are a Church and not something less? Then we must exhibit obedience and love.

From what does our produce emerge?

As Christians and as a church we produce obedience and love that extend beyond the moment, that extend beyond the minimum requirements, that exhibit the way of the Father, and that establish our discipleship. But here is a very important fact that we must not forget: we cannot make such produce come about; it must come from beyond us. So from where does it come?

From Christ’s commission. “You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit…” (v. 16). Obedience leads to obedience. We bear fruit because Christ has told us to bear fruit. He is the Lord of our lives. When we have a Lord, his words are non-negotiable. He has sent us out to bear fruit. But this does not bring us to the heart of the matter.

From the Father’s power. The final clause of v. 16 says, “so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name.” The idea is not that we have an unlimited charge account with God so that we can get whatever our human hearts desire. The idea is rather that as we are doing the will of the Father and obeying the commands of the Son and bearing the fruit that comes with being a disciple, the Father will, in response to our prayers, give us the power to bear even more fruit. Obedience and prayer act as a kind of fertilizer and enable us to produce better. But this still does not bring us to the heart of the matter.

From our abiding in Christ. This brings us to the heart of the matter: Christ is the vine and we are the branches. That reality gives us all of the potential that we need or will ever have. He is the source of our life. He can live without us but we cannot live without him. Let the words of Jesus speak for themselves:
Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (vv. 4-5).
It is only, then, in abiding or remaining in Christ that we can bear much fruit and so be his disciples.

Without abiding in Christ, we are nothing; we are counterfeit, we are dying, and we can never bear the produce that we are bear. But abiding in Christ, we are something; we are genuine, we are alive, and we are productive.

Our calling is to obey our Lord and to love with his love. Are we doing it? Are we abiding in Christ so that we can move beyond potential to productivity? Are we abiding in him so that we can move beyond what we could be doing to what we are in fact doing?

Sunday, August 19, 2007

People I Admire

(Sabbath Blog #30)

My father worked. Born in 1921, he grew up on a farm just outside Yatesville, Georgia, and, like children on farms do, worked on it. After his high school graduation he went to work for Thomaston Mills, a textile mill located in the Upson County seat. Except for the years that he spent in the Navy during World War II, Daddy worked right there at that mill until he died in 1979. And work he did. He finally rose to a managerial position that required him to wear a tie, but he would still come home grimy because he just couldn’t help himself. My father even worked when he wasn’t at work. He loved to plant a vegetable garden. He would work just as hard in it after work and on Saturdays as he did at his job.

I work, too. But most of my work is done with my heart and my mind and my ears and my mouth. It’s important and gratifying work, and it’s the kind of work that my good father hoped I would grow up to do. He didn’t want me working in the mills, which is a good thing, since the one that he worked in and for that matter most of them have shut down. His hope for me was what my hopes are for my children: that I would find my life’s work and do it. That my work is not physically demanding would make him glad, too.

I admire doctors, lawyers, teachers, ministers, accountants, nurses, managers, and all other professionals. I appreciate their education and their contributions and their accomplishments.

But I really admire construction workers and factory workers and sanitation workers and yard keepers and highway builders and folks who do physical work.

What got me to thinking about this? This week we had five pine trees taken down in our yard. That’s hard and hot work. Here in our part of the world we have had day after day of temperatures at or near 100 degrees with heat indexes well over 100. Still those men were here, doing their job, and doing it well. It’s work I cannot do. It’s work that we need good folks to do. And those guys do it.

I’m impressed. And I’m filled with admiration.

Let’s never forget that it is on the backs of such hard workers that our civilization is built. And let’s thank God for them.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Thursdays with Luke #13

Hearing and Doing the Word

Luke 5:1-11

The scene opens with the crowd pressing in on Jesus so much that he had to get into a boat and teach from a little way off the shore. Why were they pressing in on him so much? They were doing so “to hear the word of God” (v. 1). “To hear the word of God”—what an interesting motivation! Jesus embodied the word of God and he spoke the word of God. What is the word of God? In this context I believe we can think of it in the terms of the old hymn: “wonderful words of life.” The word of God is the word about who God is and what God does. Therefore the word of God is the word about grace and love and hope and faith. In hearing the word of God we are connected with God. To hear the word of God is to experience communication that signifies the existence of a relationship. And to know God is the key to everything. It is to find that life—all of life—matters and that life can be so abundant that to be lived it must be lived on into eternity. That’s why they were crowding in on Jesus. That’s what they were listening for.

We don’t know how most of them responded to what they heard. Probably some were moved and some were stuck; that’s the way it usually is. We know about Simon, though. For whatever reason, he was in obedience mode. In Luke’s narrative the healing of Simon’s mother-in-law precedes this episode, so perhaps we can conclude that Simon had already witnessed the power of God operating in Jesus. Regardless, when Jesus spoke Simon obeyed. “Put out your boat from the shore a little bit so I can teach from there.” Simon did. “Put into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” He did, but not without a mild protest: “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets.” Judging by Simon I’d say that it looks like we have to grow in our obedience. Simon first goes out into shallow water in obedience to Jesus; all he is doing is providing his boat. Then he goes out into deep water in obedience to Jesus; now he has to do something. And he has to muster some faith to try: “I’ve already done all I know to do and it hasn’t worked, but if you say so I’ll try again.” Peter heard the word of God in Jesus and then he responded to the word. Greater and greater faith and greater and greater obedience were required.

The result was abundance and risk, all at the same time. Simon and his partners threw in the net and they brought in so many fish that their nets started to break and so they called the men in the other boat and both boats got filled up and both boats started to sink! I’m not sure how they got out of that predicament, but you can just imagine the chaos that was occurring. I believe that this experience functioned as a metaphor for Simon. When you listen to and follow Jesus the abundant life is the result. But you must be aware that a truly abundant life is a truly risky life. The blessings that come from following Jesus can also put you in grave danger. It may even be the case that a discipleship that does not take risks and that will not accept danger is no discipleship at all. We need to be aware of this truth in our churches. God has abundant blessings that he is getting ready to pour out on us. But living the abundant life puts us in danger; it is risky business to be doing the will of God. So we need to be on the lookout for the blessings and the dangers and we must be willing to accept the dangers as a matter of course. If a lot of fish are caught we’ll just have to live with the precariousness of the boat.

Then Simon heard the word of God that was addressed directly to him: “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” And he had to know that once he started catching people it would be like it had been that day in the boat on the lake when this Jesus had told him to fish for fish. He had to know that once he started he just might catch boatloads of people, but he also had to know that the whole business just might sink him. The main thing he had to know, though, was that this powerful word was something he couldn’t resist. How powerful was it? Jesus called only Simon, but the others who were working with him came, too. They just couldn’t help themselves.

The job of those followers would be to speak the word, too—the word of God. And that’s our job. It’s wonderful and risky business, but it’s the only business we have—to think it and to breathe it and to live it and to speak it. Because they still need to know. As Frederick Buechner said, “We’re all so hungry, so hungry for each other and for lots of things, but it does seem to me that the basic hunger really is for the Word of God. And a lot of people don’t know that. So the job is to try to make it understandable, make it real” [In W. Dale Brown, Of Fiction and Faith: Twelve American Writers Talk About Their Vision and Work (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), p. 54].

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

How (Not) to Use the Bible

A couple of recent news stories involving the Bible caught my attention.

In one, the Cincinnati Enquirer reported that a twenty-three year old woman attempted to walk out of the downtown Cincinnati public library with a copy of The Prophecy Study Bible without checking it out. She has been charged with theft. As the news story pointed out, she would have done well to heed the “Thou shalt not steal” admonition contained in the Book.

How ludicrous! How could anyone be so interested in the Bible that she would steal one when it teaches that we shouldn’t steal? To be fair, maybe she hadn’t gotten that far in her reading yet.

Yep, that’s pretty ludicrous. Of course, it’s ludicrous that so many of us Christians tote around the Book that says “Pray for your enemies” when instead we are doing all we can to do them in.

It’s ludicrous that we carry the Book that teaches us how to deal helpfully with fallen sisters or brothers when instead we talk about them behind their backs.

It’s ludicrous that we read the Book that tells us not to lie when instead we bend and even break the truth in order to further our own agenda.

It’s ludicrous that we claim to be submissive to the teachings of the Book that contains the social preaching of the Old Testament prophets and then we promote a strictly individualistic view of salvation that allows us to leave the great social ills of our time unaddressed.

It’s ludicrous that we pledge allegiance to the Book that talks about individuality responsibility, justice, and judgment and then we fail to take seriously the precarious position of so many people before God.

It’s ludicrous that we call ourselves disciples of the Teacher who is described in the Book as having no place to lay his head and who consistently taught us to pursue the treasure that lasts for eternity when instead we pursue the same materialistic lifestyle that “worldly” people pursue.

It’s ludicrous that we learn in that Book of the Prince of Peace and we are instead proponents of war.

On second thought, maybe “ludicrous” doesn’t begin to cover it.

The other story was about a street preacher in Athens, Tennessee who refused a police officer’s order to move away from the side of the road and then hit the officer with his Bible.

That’s showing him the love of Christ.

Of course, we do tend to beat people over the head with our religion. I remember a Peanuts cartoon in which Lucy said that she thought she would be a good evangelist. She was sure that she could convince others of the superiority of her religion. When asked how she would do that, she said, “I’d hit them over the head with my lunch box.”

We do more harm than good when our motivation is the exhibition of the superiority of our religion; we do more good than harm when we joyfully share the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ.

We do more harm than good when our primary use of the Bible is the winning of religious arguments; we do more good than harm when our primary use of the Bible is the proclamation of God’s grace as known in Jesus Christ.

We do more harm that good when we take the symbolic literally or the literal symbolically; we do more good than harm when we take the symbolic symbolically and the literal literally.

We do more harm than good when we keep our Bibles closed so as not to have its teachings mess up our conclusions; we do more good than harm when we open our Bibles and read them so that the words contained therein can inform our thoughts, our feelings, and our actions.

They were just news stories, but they got me to thinking about how we use and misuse the Bible. Perhaps we should confess our failings in that area and try really hard to do better. After all, the way that we handle Scripture impacts the way that we deal with people, and such witness is mighty important.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Reactions and Responses to The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins, Pt. 13

Chapter Six is entitled “The Roots of Morality: Why Are We Good?”

That’s a good question. Another good question would be “Why are we bad?” and yet another good question would be “Why are we both good and bad?”

The Bible, to put it too simplistically, chalks our moral dilemma up to the presence of options in the world that require each individual in every generation to make choices that in turn build upon the consequences of all of the choices that have been made by all of the individuals in all of the generations that have gone before us. There are individual and communal factors in our goodness and in our badness, in other words.

Dawkins, to no one’s surprise, chalks our goodness up to natural selection.

Before he does that, though, he gets some more shots in at religious people by quoting some hateful diatribes penned by allegedly “Christian” people and addressed to Dawkins and other proponents of evolutionary theory. The missives that he quotes are juvenile loads of bile that, were they actually reflective of the attitudes of most Christians, should fill us with shame. I’m just irritated at his citing of them because I know that’s not how most Christians think or talk. But, to be sure, some do. Beyond taking more potshots at Christians, though, Dawkins does siphon at least one valid point from those letters: many Christians do believe that to embrace evolutionary theory is to take God out of the picture (a conclusion with which Dawkins would agree) and that removal of God eliminates the basis for human morality (a conclusion with which Dawkins would not agree).

Indeed, Dawkins champions morality (what sane person would not?) and tries to make a case for human morality emerging out of the process of natural selection. Given that his hypotheses in this area are not testable, it’s really hard to argue with him. Of course, given that my belief in the involvement of God in the creation process is also not testable, it’s really hard for him to argue with me.

Dawkins’ basic argument is that genes would “selfishly” insure their own survival by influencing their host organisms to behave in altruistic fashion. For instance, in the earliest stages of human development, we would have been inclined to be kind and helpful either to our close kin or to those who could reciprocate our kindness. In time, Dawkins says, the need to limit our kindness to our kin or to those who could reciprocate went away, but the impulse to kindness did not. He says this is a “misfiring” of the earlier survival instinct, but one that is to be seen as a “blessed, precious” “Darwinian mistake” (p. 221), much like the impulse to sexual attraction that continues even without a reproductive motive.

My response to this argument is “maybe, maybe not.” Who can know? I just don’t see how his thesis, while somewhat logical, can be tested, and where is the science in that?

Dawkins does raise an interesting philosophical question when he asks, “If there is no God, why be good?” He says that there is some evidence that people who believe in God are not more moral than those who do not. The only “evidence” he cites is a section from fellow atheist Sam Harris who wrote about the higher crime rates in “red” and thus predominantly Republican and thus allegedly more Christian states. That’s pretty weak.

Dawkins speculates that atheists may actually be more moral than theists, not because they are atheists, but because of the “possibility…that atheism is correlated with some third factor, such as higher education, intelligence or reflectiveness, which might counter criminal impulses” (p. 229). I had almost forgotten Dawkins’ belief that atheists are just smarter than people who believe in God.

The only way that Dawkins can envision a belief in God having an impact on morality is that people who believe in God think of him as a cosmic policeman who is always looking to catch us in the wrong so he can do something bad to us. Thus, our belief in God influences us negatively; if we do good and don’t do evil, it’s because we don’t want God to get us. Such is a gross mischaracterization of the motive that most Christians actually have for serving God and for following Christ and for trying to live by the Bible. We in fact love God and believe that he loves us and wants what is best for us. We believe that in being connected with him we are connected with the source of life and love. We serve him because he loves us and because we love him. I for one stopped being afraid of God a long time ago, if by “afraid” you mean “afraid of what he might do to me.”

Dawkins does seem at the conclusion of the chapter to throw religious folks a bone by saying that “it is pretty hard to defend absolutist morals on grounds other than religious ones” (p. 232). He says that in the course of dealing with the argument that belief in God does at least provide a standard by which what is evil and what is good can be determined. It’s a bone tied to a string, however, because Dawkins goes on to say that such moral absolutism is usually based on allegiance to a holy book. Unfortunately, he will spend his next chapter trying to dismantle the legitimacy of the Bible. I suspect that his arguments are going to sound pretty tired.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Parenting through Communication

(A sermon based on Proverbs 22:6 & Ephesians 6:1-4)

The lifestyle of our families is an active, often hectic one. While the results of our efforts are often rewarding, we nonetheless pay a price for our “busyness.” Unfortunately, many times that price is paid by our family. One area that can suffer is the area of communication. How long has it been since you really talked with your child?

Let us consider some general hopes for the family communication process. It is to be hoped that:

Our children feel free to talk to us. Sometimes our children go through times in their lives when they choose to be uncommunicative. We need to understand their periodic need not to talk. But whenever they do need to talk, they should be able to come to us. For that to be the case, they must perceive a genuine openness on our part.

Some pointers: (1) Tone down the criticism. Children (and adults) make mistakes. If we are unceasingly critical, our children will not feel free to share their problems with us. (2) Adopt a posture of openness. That is, take time to talk with your children and look at them when they speak to you.

With younger children, bedtime is an important communicative experience. As you probably know, it is important to establish a bedtime routine with young children. Part of that routine could be a time of sharing with your child. Chances are that she had some interesting and/or troubling things happen that day, and they need to be talked about.

With all children, dinnertime is an excellent opportunity for communication. The family dinner is usually one of the first casualties of the wars of overtime, church activity, ballgames, hobbies, and dates. Insofar as possible, dinnertime should be a priority for every family member. Communication should take place around the table. Interspersed among the “Pass the potatoes” and the “May I have some more juices” and the “Mom, she’s looking at me agains” should come some legitimate and serious communication.

Communication is an ongoing process. While we can and should have special times of talking, our families should be always ready to share with each other. Our children need our words of support, encouragement, and correction from early on until they become adults.

An important question remains. Why is communication with our children so important? A similar question is, what is the purpose of communicating with our children?

We communicate with our children in order to know who they are

A literal translation of Proverbs 22:6 would be, “Train up a child according to his way…” The Amplified Bible states it this way: “Train up a child in the way he should go [and in keeping with his individual gift or bent]….” You see, the way any child should go must be his or her way. That does not mean that we have no influence or no hand in determining what they way should be. No, if our children know that we love them they will want (sometimes) to heed our instructions.

But if our guidance is going to be effective and informed, we must know our child and that means knowing each child. If you have ten children, each one will be different from the others. If you have one child, that child is unique. G. Campbell Morgan said that it “is God’s regular method” to break the mold: “God made you, and broke the mold. He made every child in my home and broke the mold, and there are no two alike.” Therefore, Morgan said, “You must specialize…. You must discover what the child is if you would train the child” [“The Training of Our Children,” The Westminster Pulpit, Vol. II (Westwood, NJ: Fleming H. Revell, 1954), p. 118].

There is a great biblical truth involved in this: God made each and every one of us unique. Even identical twins are different. Obviously, God takes our differences seriously. He does not deal with me in exactly the same way that he deals with you. We may hear the same things, but we hear with different ears. The various strands of tradition in the Bible are evidence of that truth. Therefore, as parents, we must take the differences in our children seriously. We must talk with them, get to know them, and learn what makes them tick. Only as we get a grip on a child’s individuality can we guide their growth effectively.

We communicate with our children in order to help them know the truth

It is true that our children must find their own way, but two other truths are related to that one.

They must know the truth about their world. When we speak of our children finding their way, it is implied that they must find their way through something. They must find their way through this life; they must also find their way in this life.

Their world is tough. In an old country song, a father tells his son that “the world is rough, and if you’re going to make it, you’ve gotta be tough.” Therefore, this loving father named his son “Sue.” There are better ways to teach our children about the toughness of the world.

We can let them hear. That is, tell them. Tell them what the abuse of drugs and alcohol can do to them. Tell them what pre-marital sexual involvement can do to them. Tell them what being in the wrong place at the wrong time can do to them.

We can let them see. That is, we can show them. I went to Washington, D.C. on a government studies program in 1973. We rode our tour buses around to all the usual sites, the various memorials and stately buildings. But our guides made it a point to take us into the “other” Washington—the slums and run-down areas where the poor of the city lived. They could have chosen to shelter us from all of that, but they did not, and we grew. We cannot shelter our children from the suffering and evil of this world. Is it not better that they encounter it under our guidance so that we can help them to deal with it and learn from it?

We can let them fail. Life is full of challenges and our children will not be able to meet all of them successfully, at least not on the first try. Finding their way is a new experience for them. They must have the freedom to make mistakes and to learn from them. By loving them always and by supporting them always we can tell them that failure is all right as long as it is learned from.

They must know the truth about their guides. By this I mean that they should know that their parents are not superhuman. Finding their way will take patience on their part and frustration is always possible. How helpful it is to them to know that we are still finding our way, too. Moreover, parents must earn their credentials to be the ones who will “train up” our children. Maintenance of authority is something earned. We won’t earn it by trying to appear perfect. We can earn it if our children see us making mistakes and admitting our weaknesses.

We communicate with our children in order to help them know proper values

Values education should begin in the home. We as parents must talk with our children if we are going to teach them of Christian values. What do I mean by Christian values? I offer three examples.

Who you are is more important than what you have. To our children we should say, “You are special because God made you special. God wants you to become his special servant. The most important thing in the world is that you have a relationship with Jesus Christ and that that relationship controls everything you are and do. Everything else pales in comparison; who you are in Christ is the real measure of success.”

Love is our one law. To our children we should say, “The greatest gift is love and God sent Jesus to show us what love is. Love is giving of yourself until there is nothing left. Love is giving to people who don’t care. Love is everything.”

Every person is important. To our children we should say, “Be kind to everyone. Help whomever you can. Everyone in the world is God’s creation. Jesus died for every one of them, so treat them with respect and concern.”

The KJV translates Ephesians 6:4 this way: “Bring them up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord” (emphasis mine). If we will admonish our children to have these and other Christian values, they will be better people. And this world will be a better place.

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Symmetry

(Sabbath Blog #29)

My wife Debra and I are both graduates of Mercer University; I received my B.A. in 1978 and she received hers in 1979. Our daughter Sara is a junior at our alma mater.

During her freshman year at Mercer, Debra lived in a dorm that was called, with no pizzazz but with great accuracy, Freshman Women’s Dorm. She and I started dating that year. We both attended summer school in 1977. All summer students, men and women, were housed in Freshman Women’s Dorm, with the women in one wing and the men in the other. When I got my room assignment, I was in the same room in which Debra had lived during her freshman year.

When we were students at Mercer, the Mary Erin Porter complex, always known as MEP, was the primary residence hall for sophomore, junior, and senior women. Debra lived there during her junior year. Now, MEP is the main dorm for freshman women. So, when Sara got her housing assignment for the fall of 2005, she learned that she was to live in MEP. On move-in day, I lugged the first box up to her room on the third floor. When I came back down, I told Debra, “You’re not going to believe what room Sara is in.” It was not the same room that Debra had lived in but it was the room that adjoined it.

Debra and I got married right after I graduated from Mercer; she still had a year left. We rented an apartment in an old house that Mercer owned on the edge of the campus. Our address was 1548 Johnson Avenue, Apt. 2. A few years ago, Mercer tore down that house and a lot of other buildings and built a new Greek Village. This year, Sara is living in one of the Greek Village houses. To get there, you turn down Johnson Avenue. If the house in which she’s living is not on the spot where our apartment was, it’s awfully close.

Sometimes, the pieces of your life actually do seem to fit together.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

A DVD Review and a CD Review by Josh Ruffin

You can read Josh's review of the DVD A Decade on the Throne by Chthonic here and his review of the CD Paradise Lost by Symphony X here.

Barry Bonds* Post at EthicsDaily.com

Yesterday's post about Barry Bonds appears in an abbreviated form at today's EthicsDaily.com.

Thursdays with Luke #12

Kingdom Works

Luke 4:31-44

To be liberated is to be set free. When Jesus read the Scripture and preached in the synagogue at Nazareth, he said that he had been sent to set the captives free. The stories contained in our passage show that he in fact did that. The works of the kingdom involved setting people free from what enslaved them and tormented them. In our passage we see two kinds of bondage from which people needed to be set free: spiritual bondage and physical bondage. The man in the synagogue out of whom Jesus casts a demon was in spiritual bondage, as were some of the people who came to him later in the day. Simon’s mother-in-law was in physical bondage as were others who came to him later in the day. In a sense then the man in the synagogue and Simon’s mother-in-law are specific examples of the general kinds of problems that people coming to Jesus were having. And those kinds of problems still continue.

Spiritual problems abound. People are bound by all kinds of harmful spiritual conditions. We think of the basic condition as being lost and that is certainly true. But people are crippled by all sorts of spiritual diseases. We might think of them in two categories: there are those who focus too little on themselves and those who focus too much on themselves. Paying no attention or very little attention to your own life and to your own spirit is a spiritual disease. We might compare such folks to those who have all sorts of symptoms of a physical disease but who ignore them and refuse to seek treatment. People who pay no attention to themselves just float through life and fail to recognize the fix they’re in. They are the cold or the ignorant or the deluded.

But then there are those who focus too much attention on themselves. We might compare them to those who are always finding things wrong with themselves. They are the spiritual hypochondriacs. Their disease is self-centeredness and their condition is critical. They are beset by an obsession with their standing and status. Pride might be their problem. Paranoia might be their problem. Privilege might be their problem. Or their problems might run in other directions. Excessive insecurity. Fermenting anger. Irrational bitterness. Such are some of the spiritual diseases that afflict people today, and there are many others.

Jesus also helped people who were afflicted with physical diseases. Such things come to all of us and they have many causes. Genetics and environment can conspire to gift us with a disease. Behavior and environment can contribute to others. A random germ that sneaks up on us on a lazy Tuesday might do us in. Stress and worry might bring us down. And occasionally our diseases are imaginary. But there are a lot of sick people, aren’t there?

Jesus was doing the work of the kingdom. That work involved setting the prisoners free. Here we see that it involved setting those free who were bound by spiritual or physical problems. Jesus had the same authority over both situations: he “rebuked” the demon (v. 35) and he “rebuked” the fever (v. 39). He had the same authority over spiritual and physical illnesses. And the good news is that he still does. We can turn to him for the help we need for whatever ails us.

(I think that it is important that we remember that it is possible to be made well while at the same time we have residual effects of the disease. For example, Jesus works his mighty healing sometimes in ways that make us ultimately well but we might still have the disease. Sometimes, of course, the disease is completely cured.)

There is one more thing about this passage that I want us to note. Jesus had a lot to do. He was besieged by people who came to him looking for help. But he had to leave where he was to do the works of the kingdom elsewhere. We who are the disciples of Christ have the privilege and the responsibility of continuing the works of his kingdom. As we pray and as we work we need to remember that we are surrounded by people who are beset by spiritual and physical illnesses. They need our prayers but they also need our love and concern. Let us continue the works of the kingdom by giving it to them.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Barry Bonds*

Today has been declared Barry Bonds Day in San Francisco. Bonds is being given a day because last night he broke one of the most revered records in sports—the career home run record. He hit career home run #756 off of Washington Nationals pitcher Mike Bacsik.

I put an asterisk beside Bonds’ name in the title of this post in order to make the point that the record of his accomplishment should perhaps be qualified in some way. Having made that point, I must hasten to say that I don’t believe that asterisks should actually be used in that way, even in this case. When Roger Maris broke Babe Ruth’s single season home run mark in 1961, then Commissioner of Baseball Ford Frick decreed that Maris’ total of 61 would bear an asterisk in the record books because he had hit those home runs over a 162 game season whereas Ruth had hit his 60 over a 154 game season. Such distinctions are misguided because each era of baseball is different from every other era. Stadiums change, baseballs change, bats change, and athletes change. If baseball is going to have records, distinctions cannot be made due to the differences in eras.

I say that even about the “steroid era”—with some qualifications.

I don’t believe that an asterisk should be placed beside Bonds’ career total, whatever that turns out to be, unless and until it is proven that Bonds used steroids. Should such use by him ever be proven, I still don’t believe that an asterisk should be placed beside his total. Perhaps, though, multiple asterisks should then be used, as is sometimes done when respectable publications need to let readers know that a curse word was used but don’t want to spell it out—he would thus be listed in the record books at B***Y B****S. Truth be told, I really believe that if it is ever proven that Bonds used steroids, asterisks will not go far enough. Instead, his name should be removed completely from the record books. I would, by the way, say the same thing about Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa or anyone else were it to become known for a fact that they had used steroids.

The way that many (perhaps most, maybe even the vast majority) of us baseball fans have been compelled to think about Bonds’ pursuit of Aaron’s record is a shame, really. On last night’s Atlanta Braves radio broadcast, announcer Pete Van Weiren pointed out how strange last weekend was for baseball fans. It should, he said, have been one of the greatest weekends in baseball history. New York Mets (and former Braves) pitcher Tom Glavine won his 300th career game, New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriquez became the youngest player ever to reach 500 career home runs, and Barry Bonds tied Hank Aaron’s career home run record. But, Van Weiren pointed out, while there was some excitement about Glavine’s and Rodriquez’s accomplishments, there was not much excitement about what Bonds had done, at least not outside of his home base of San Francisco.

I remember very well the excitement that accompanied Aaron’s pursuit of Ruth’s career home run record. That is not to say that all was sweetness and light, because it wasn’t. Ruth was and is venerated and rightly so; some people still regard him as the greatest home run hitter of all time even though his record has now been eclipsed twice. He was far and away the greatest home run hitter of his era while Aaron did have some peers who were right up there with him, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson in particular. Ruth also is usually credited with being the individual most responsible for making major league baseball the cultural phenomenon that it is. So, some folks had legitimate respect for the Babe and genuinely regretted seeing his record fall. There was an ugly side to some people’s negativity toward Aaron’s pursuit, especially in those who just did not want to see a black man break a white icon’s record. At least we are spared that sort of thing this time around. I was a fifteen year old devoted Braves fan in 1974 and so I was thrilled when Aaron broke the record, although, because of a misguided sense of religious duty, I did not actually get to witness it because our church’s youth choir was singing at a local church’s revival service that night!

I want to say what many others have said: in America a person is innocent until proven guilty and Barry Bonds has not been proven guilty of anything. On the other hand, he has not been charged with anything so the fairly abundant circumstantial evidence has not yet been put to the test. The way that we jump to conclusions makes me a little nervous. On an episode of the Bob Newhart Show, Bob was hosting a local television talk show. One night he had as a guest a man who owned “the world’s smallest horse.” Bob asked him, “How do you know it’s the world’s smallest horse?” The man replied, “Just look at him!” We’ve done that with Bonds. We look at how he appeared when he was gangly young outfielder with the Pittsburgh Pirates and at how much larger and stronger he became late in his career and we say, “Of course he used steroids—just look at him!” I myself weigh seventy pounds more at age 48 than I did at age 20. Still, Bonds' real power surge occurred late in his career in ways that are unprecedented in major league baseball. I can’t honestly say that my power has increased. But I say again: if it is ever proven that Bonds’ used steroids, his name should be erased from the record books.

I have a picture of Hank Aaron hanging on the wall in my study. Beneath it is a framed editorial cartoon by Marshall Ramsey that depicts a young boy and his father visiting the Baseball Hall of Fame. The father is holding a copy of Juiced by Jose Canseco. His son, pointing at the plaques of Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron, asks, “What kind of performance enhancer did they use?” The father replies, “Talent.”

Ruth and Aaron, so far as anyone can tell, used no artificial performance enhancers. Ruth died long before I came along, but I have seen for myself the dignity and class with which Henry Aaron has carried himself and the fine way in which he has represented the game of baseball. Let’s face it—Bonds would be an unpopular home run king even if steroids did not exist. That is true because of his perceived egotism and self-centeredness. The allegations of steroid use just make it worse.

We can argue from now until A-Rod breaks Bonds’ record about who the greatest home run hitter of all time truly is. But given the choice of having either Aaron or Bonds speak to your church or civic group or elementary school or of having either or them come to your home for dinner, whom would you choose?

And that’s because ethics, dignity, fair play, class, and respect still mean something in this old world, thank God.